To ensure the quality of tabletop grapes, i.e., grapes grown for people to eat, a U.S. university and an Indian multinational corporation have joined forces to develop grape-picking robots.
Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.‘s farm equipment division is tapping into the U.S. technology ecosystem by establishing a high-tech research and development facility at the corporate research center of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
Dubbed the Mahindra AgTech Center, the facility will complement the work being done in product development centers at Mahindra Research Valley in India, Japan, and Finland to create a new generation of equipment to help farmers throughout the world.
Automated harvesting of tabletop grapes
The idea for a robot that could efficiently harvest tabletop grapes was first proposed by Mahindra, said Tomonari “Tomo” Furukawa, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.
“India is the second-largest producer in the world in tabletop grapes,” he said. “There are many countries that produce grapes for wine and juice, but wine and juice and tabletop grapes are very different.”
The expectations for ripeness and appearance are different for tabletop grapes, so quality control is critical.
“We don’t care about the quality of wine and juice grapes, and there are mechanical harvesters [to pick those], but they’re not robot harvesters,” Furukawa explained. “They simply shake the trees, and the grapes drop. We do not care about the quality, so this is fine.”
“Low-quality grapes go to the domestic market, but high-quality tabletop grapes go to Japan and Europe,” he said. “So to make the business more profitable, [farmers] want to increase the quality [of the grapes].”
For humans, picking tabletop grapes is very labor-intensive. They have to make sure that the grapes are ripe as well as wrap the high-end products in paper to avoid sunlight, said Furukawa. At the same time, each person has a different visual criteria for harvesting, so the quality cannot be maintained.
Robots to reduce intensive labor
“That brings up the idea of robotic harvesting, which replaces the human harvesters,” Furukawa said. “I think for quality control, it’s very important, as the people get very tired. If the robot can do a consistent perception to evaluate the quality product, we can maintain the quality. And if we also have good robot harvesters, we can reduce human labor or at least reduce the labor-intensive work.”
Robots are very important to farmers who harvest tabletop grapes, said Rajesh Jejurikar, president of the farm equipment sector at Mahindra & Mahindra.
“Otherwise, it’s a very manual, time-consuming activity,” he said. “Robots will prevent damage to the grapes because they will appropriately use sensors to pick grapes, causing minimal damage.”
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Research on robotic harvesting has been occurring for 30 years. But because it’s very difficult to develop such robots, a lot of people have given up on creating them commercially and are only doing prototypes, according to Furukawa.
“However the technology is getting more mature, and it is really the right time, so we can’t stop working on it,” he said. “In our case, we are using advanced robotic vision to identify grapes in a three-dimensional environment using state-of-the-art robotic vision. In the past, we have only been doing two-dimensional computer vision.”
Then Furukawa and his team will use techniques, such as machine learning, so the quality control will be consistent.
Two arms for a dynamic environment
“We will also introduce a dual-arm robotic harvester to increase the efficiency of the harvester as well as enable it to do more complex tasks,” Furukawa said. “Humans can avoid one branch with one hand and cut with the other. So a robot with only one arm cannot do this, but with dual arms, we can do more tasks.”
Currently, robotic arms are used in very controlled, indoor environments, particularly in manufacturing.
“What we are trying to do is much more difficult,” he said. “The agriculture field is more difficult than an indoor environment. Just thinking about the branch — it’s very elastic.”
“The robots then have to move product, which is very soft,” Furukawa added. “So all of these things are very complex. That’s why the people weren’t able to do well in the past. However, we are going to try to advance technology this time more seriously.”
Prospects for picking robots
Although this project focuses on using robots to harvest grapes, they could eventually be used for other crops.
“At this moment, we are focusing on grapes, but even with the grapes, we have to do other tasks, such as pruning,” Furukawa said. “There are a number of tasks the farmers have to do. We tried to use a generic platform to do those tasks because each agricultural product has different characteristics.”
Both Furukawa and Jejurikar said the work being done with these robots will open up more possibilities, not just in India but also in other parts of the world, including the U.S.
Although the researchers declined to comment on when these grape-picking robots would be put into production, Furukawa said it would happen in the “near future.”